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Sissy Spacek Interviews

First published in "Cinefantastique" magazine
Volume 6, Number 1, 1977

NOTE: This was reprinted in a 1999 issue of Femme Fatales, which differs slightly from the version published in Cinefantastique. I've tried to combine the two variations of the interview

Sissy Spacek was interviewed by Mike Childs and Alan Jones over breakfast at the Intercontinental Hotel in London, where whe was appearing to promote the opening of CARRIE. The interview took place prior to the announcement of her Oscar nomination as "Best Actress" for her performance in CARRIE. Sissy was present at the Oscar ceremonies in Hollywood on March 28, but instead saw the award go to Faye Dunnaway for her performance in NETWORK.

Sissy, christened Mary Elizabeth Spacek, the actress was raised in Quitman, Texas (pop 1000), 90 miles northeast of Dallas. After high school she yearned for a career as a singer/musician and, with her parents' consent, departed for New York City. Upon her arrival in the Big Apple, Spacek boarded with her actor/cousin Rip Torn (THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW) and his wife Geraldine Page. When her musical career fizzled, Spacek enrolled in Lee Strasberg's acting class. She paid for her food and education by posing as a photographic model. Making her film debut in PRIME CUT (1972), the youthful thespian supported Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman. Transplanting herself to another medium, Spacek was cast in TV movies, including THE MIGRANTS and KATHERINE, the latter a revisionary spin the real-life Patty Hearst story. But it was her role in BADLANDS (1973), as a murderer's 15-year-old apprentice/lover, that earned Spacek international attention. Directed in the film by Terence Malick, she was nominated for a BAFTA film award - the British equivalent of an Oscar - as Best Newcomer. Cast as CARRIE, Spacek played a persecuted, telekinetic outcast whose repressed hostility literally explodes on prom night. Based on a Stephen King novel, the movie grossed 15 times its $1.8 million budget.

Exempting THE COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER and JFK, Spacek's non-commercial choices of roles have been limited to variable, uncompromising appendages of the female psyche. Even her only other genre film, THREE WOMEN, non-viscerally invokes its "horror" - schizophrenia and/or rebirth - from female introspection. The Oscar winner, who has been nominated for a total of five films, lives in Topanga Canyon, California, where she rides horseback and returns to the simpler lifestyle and times of Quitman, Texas. But let's flashback to 1976…

How did you manage to get the title role in CARRIE?

Well, Jack [Fisk, Spacek's husband] was going to be working on it [as an art director] and [director] Brian DePalma called me an mentioned that I ought to get the book and read it, as there was a part in it that might be good for me. That was way early on, before things were definite. I took for granted he wanted me to do the part, so I got the book and read it and got all into it. Then, two weeks later, his secretary called and said they wanted me to come in and read for it. When I got there, they were reading girls in groups of three! He must have called up everyone and said, "Here's a part that I think will be good for you!"

Every time we were called in, we were asked to read for Carrie, so I'd rub Vaseline in my hair and get all frumpy. But in my group of three, I'd always end up reading Chris Hargenson's part [the "bad girl" eventually played by Nancy Allen]! I just took for granted that would be the part I'd play… not that the part was what I wanted, it just evolved that way.

When Brian did the screen tests, I was very surprised that I was asked to test for Carrie and not Chris as I had assumed. I disturbed me a bit because I knew he liked this other girl. Only three of us tested for Carrie. I'd gotten a Vanquish commercial for the day the test was going to be, and I never got commercials. I called Brian and said, "How come I'm not testing for Chris?" He said, "You read Chris better than anybody, but I just don't see you in that part - as a sexpot." I could have done that part, but Brian saw me less as Chris and more as Carrie as I'd go in with this Vaseline in my hair. But unless something extraordinary happened in the test, he was going to use the other girl. I told him I had a Vanquish commercial for the same day as the test and asked what I should do. He said, "Do the commercial."

That was on Thursday, and on Monday I was starting WELCOME TO L.A. The character in that movie was totally different. It was upsetting me because I was testing for a part when I already had one that I should have been working on! If I was testing, though, I was going to get it. You don't want a bad film floating around. You never know who might get to see it. So I crammed that night. I worked with Jack - he played the Tommy Ross and Margaret White characters - and I got it!

That blood dumped on you in the prom scene - real blood?

No. I told them at first they could use real blood, I was so into the part! It was actually a mixture of Karo syrup and food coloring. It was so sticky and I would freeze on the soundstage! Brian had intended to use a new modern school - California State University - but a big, modern glass school would have been too intimidating for Carrie. She would have crawled along the corridors to get to class! Eventually, we found an old abandoned school, Pier Avenue School, in Hermosa Beach, about 40 miles from L.A. Jack rebuilt the gymnasium in the soundstage, as it had to burn. The special effects were very interesting. I had to stand on that stage while everything was on fire! I got all the hair on my body practically singed off! I got so involved in it! "Fire? It can't hurt me! I'm Carrie, I'll flex!" While I was on the platform, my cue was, "Leave the stage only when you can't stand the heat anymore. But walk slowly!"

What about the sequence where you overturn Chris and Billy's car?

That sequence was shot fast but it was a stunt girl, not me. Because the film was so stylized, I wanted to do it - except I didn't want to get run over, of course! I worked with the stunt girl a lot because, at that point, I wanted Carrie's body movements to be so stiff. The car was rigged with a "cannon." When the stunt man got up to 60 miles per hour, he shot a two-foot telephone pole out of the bottom of the car which flipped it over! A second later, he blew up a gas can in the trunk which flipped it over some more! [Note: In "Acting Carrie" the documentary on the Special Edition DVD, Spacek says that she was in the shot during this sequence....??]

Was the stunt girl also used in the scene where Carrie falls down the stairs?

Yes. They rigged a platform at the top of the stairs. When Piper [Laurie] stabs me, I fall back out of frame - foot last. It's so well cut that it looks like me. Poor girl. She had to do it three times! It's one of my favorite sequences: the stabbing, the fall, the scooting across the floor. I just loved it.

Did you like the way the telekinesis was played down in the film as opposed to the book?

Very much. There had been more planned, but one's imagination can make things more outrageous than can be filmed.

We played down the crying too. I didn't want Carrie to be a little wimp who cried all the time. So anytime she cried, it was like bottling it in. There was never any release - she would cry but always push it back, so that she was like a time bomb all the time. Finally, it all comes out and she explodes.

The shower sequence [Carrie experiencing her first period] was very tricky. I knew it had to be horrendous and bigger than life. She had to give the girls a motive for being so weird. I used an etching from the bible of a guy getting stoned to death. The Dore facial expressions are so intense and so much larger than life. The body movement too, I wanted to have a strange quality. When the blood hits, it's almost like she looks up to God. It's coming from the Heavens and that's where God lives. I wanted subtle touches like that.

Did you find Carrie's transition from ugly duckling to prom queen difficult?

Not really. I came out of that, Texas proms, etcetera. That was the least exciting part of the movie. I hated wearing the makeup!

How about the dancing sequence with William Katt?

I loved that. The rhythm of the whole scene got me excited. We were spinning on a circle, and the camera moved the other way. We had to be on camera every time we said a line. If anyone had explained it to me before we started, I would have said it was impossible! It worked, and I couldn't believe it. We were on camera every time! At the right time! It's an exhilarating scene. You share Carrie's happiness. It really comes through. Brian does that kind of thing real well. He takes your emotions from a horrific moment to a funny moment to a romantic moment to a horrific moment. He's such a physical director and such a fine boy.

The three of us working together - director, actress and Jack, the designer - were able to be totally involved with the project way before it started. We knew what would happen in any situation. We used to call Brian, so when he got back and turned on his answering machine, he'd hear, "Brian, we've got this great idea!"

There was one scene cut out of the film, primarily because it was shot in a similar fashion to the dance. It would've worked, but the same technique wouldn't have. It established Carrie with herself. You saw Carrie's barriers: a smile that, in case her classmates suddenly changed their minds and realized she wasn't a nerd, she'd be ready. I wanted to show her alone, so you'd get a sense of her strength. The scene was in her bedroom upstairs, her only safe place. She had a box that she kept under the bed. I did the same thing when I was a child, a fishing tackle box. Her inside self was there; the real Carrie, the Carrie who was a poet and artist. She wasn't just a mashed up little girl. I wanted to show that something came out of being locked in that closet for weeks. Inside the box was her poetry, the fabric that she eventually used for her dress, a picture of Tommy Ross, a snapshot of her father. She was upstairs the day she'd been sent home early from school. The camera slowly pans around the room and you see flowers and pictures - a little girl's room, in fact. Then she sees her mother return and she runs around putting everything away and back under her bed. And this is where they started the scene - she grabs a sweater, buttons it up and puts the key to the box around her neck. But we couldn't use that shot because it was just too much spinning.

You may have noticed all the attic space between the stairs and Carrie's room? Well, the flooring wasn't finished and Carried hid things down there, too. It was her own private world. I wanted to establish that because, at one time, we thought that Carrie could crash through the floor to the kitchen after being stabbed - so she would literally crash through her own little world, the one she had created.

Could you have seen a future for Carrie and Tommy Ross if the practical joke hadn't been played?

I'm sure. He was totally caught up in it. Carrie was much more sensitive than Sue Snell [played by Amy Irving] - remember when Sue and Tommy were in the teacher's office? Well, she says "We want to take Carrie to the prom, don't we?" Tommy was more arrogant and sarcastic with Sue. I think he was so surprised with Carrie that he forgot she was the nerd. If anyone had tried to relate to her, they would have known she wasn't.

Was that your hand in Sue Snell's climactic "graveyard" nightmare?

Yes, it was! Jack dug the hole, Brian yelled "Grab!" and that was my cue. Those rocks were pumice and they were heavy. It was the last day of shooting and I was all dolled up and they wanted my stand-in to do it. But my hand is my hand! It was claustrophobic but very exciting. I couldn't see and what with the blood being slippery, I almost broke Amy Irving's arm! The rocks scratched my arms to bits all the way down, but I wouldn't have missed that for the world!

Can you see a future for yourself in the horror film genre?

I always wanted to do a horror movie. I've been very affected by them in the past. It would all depend on the director and the project. I'd work with Brian again. He has enormous respect for actors. I had more freedom on Carrie than on anything else I'd worked on.

At one point, Brian thought of me for PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE but someone told him I couldn't sing! I started out as a musician playing a 12-string guitar. I'm one heavy rock'n'roller! You'd never have guessed now. I eventually worked on PHANTOM as a set decorator. The film didn't work but it could have, and it would have been a neat film!

Brian isn't your regular filmmaker. Neither are the other directors I've worked with. Working with a director is like having a relationship. For me, it's more the director than the project. But I'd love to work on another horror movie, as they are so stylized. If CARRIE is any yardstick to how horror films are going to be -- yes, I want to do more!


Basic Spacek

Soft-Spoken Sissy Reveals Another Side

By Larry Gordon
Circus Magazine
July 21, 1977

The little-girl freckles are deceiving, even though they stretch from her forehead right down to where the gold cross and necklace dangles inside the brown blouse. They are a little deceiving because Sissy Spacek is far from a little kid; she's 27, and after ten years of knocking on doors, she's inside that space reserved for the talented and determined. She's a movie star -- complete with freckles and a sweet Texas twang.

The star of BADLANDS, CARRIE, WELCOME TO L.A., and THREE WOMEN was sitting crosslegged, yoga-style, on an armchair in her New York hotel suite. Her strawberry blonde hair was pulled up like a Gibson girl and there was more than a touch of rogue on her cheeks. She was talking about how she has to fight an image.

"I used to get real upset when someone would say, 'Oh, she'd be a wonderful, quiet 15 year old for this or that movie.' I knew I wasn't just that. I may have been that a few years ago. But I don't get upset anymore. I now have the option to take those films or not. I choose not to."

Sissy pointed out that her character, Pinky, in Robert Altman's spacey-psychological THREE WOMEN is "a blank page, someone who takes on the personality of others." One of the meanings of the film, she says, is that our personalities aren't as steadfast as we think they are. "I think human beings are boundless, bottomless pits with endless resources to draw upon. We only bind ourselves into categories."

The category of actress was not Sissy Spacek's first choice and may not be her last. At 17, she left Quitman, Texas (population 1,200) with a 12 string guitar in hand to become a country singer in New York. She first stayed there with her cousin, actor Rip Torn, and sang in Greenwich Village clubs for ten bucks a night plus supper. After making the audition rounds, she landed some studio gigs. "I was into country rock before country rock was in," she laughs. "It was all Chewy, Chewy, Yummy, Yummy bubblegum music then. So I just worked my head off trying to get that style and just as I got that down, it was out and something else was in."

If she wasn't ready for music fame, it seems acting fame was ready for her. A few modeling stints (at 5'2" she says "I was too short") led to some acting classes and then a part in her first movie PRIME CUT, a clinker about a white slavery ring.

The next year, director Terrence Malick cast her in BADLANDS. Sissy's portrayal of a teenager accompanying her boyfriend in a bloody spree of murders won her a set of fabulous reviews. "That was a real important film for me because it was the first time I ever felt that connection with what I call the Lifeforce -- creating a reality -- where the actual filmwork itself was more exciting to me than seeing my face 40 feet tall on the screen." The film, unfortunately, was not widely seen. "I don't think I could have handled it all then -- getting a chance to make a brilliant film and then to have it be a hit -- it might have been to much for flesh to bear."

But BADLANDS brought a side-benefit better than money: it's art director was her soon-to-be husband Jack Fisk. And during the next two years, when she didn't get any film acting jobs, Sissy helped with art direction on a couple of films, including PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. Its director, Brian DePalma, would later remember them both for another one of his shockers, CARRIE. Before that, however, she traveled to Europe and made some TV movies, including KATHERINE, a sort of Patty Hearst saga.

DePalma has said: "There's something about Sissy on film -- she makes some connection that startles you." Anyone who has seen CARRIE can attest to that. In that wonderfully macabre flick, she travels from repressed wallflower to lovely prom queen to blood-drenched monster wreaking vengeance on both the innocent and the guilty. She gives an absolutely riveting performance which won the best actress award from the National Society of Film Critics and an Oscar nomination. She lost the Academy Award to Faye Dunaway, but says she wasn't disappointed. "Oh no, not disappointed at all. I didn't expect to be nominated and was very thrilled just by that. The actresses I was nominated with, I'd be thrilled to be in the same room with. I'm serious." And with a touch of the country girl come to the BIG City, she added: "My biggest disappointment that night was that I was sitting in the front row and I couldn't turn around and see who was there."

From CARRIE, she got all kinds of fan reactions. "I got a letter from a guy who said he knew me in another life and that my name was Ursela. Could very well be... I'd have men tell me 'that's my life story.' People related to the emotions in CARRIE, the rage, the fear, the exhilaration. It was like an emotional roller coaster ride. I would like to think that everyone thought of Carrie as themselves in some way."

CARRIE plopped her firmly into stardom and onto the cover of Newsweek, where she was hailed as top of the pack of a new generation of Hollywood actresses about to end an era of male-dominated movies. "I think this is a real exciting time for women in films, a REAL exciting time for women, period. In films, producers realize there's a whole big market for women and tat the business in general is changing. Many women of our generation didn't know some of the problems faced by the generation of, say, Lee Grant and Dyan Cannon, those filmmakers who are very talented but who had so much to burn through. They led the way. They fought a lot of our fights for us. I appreciate it."

WELCOME TO L.A. and THREE WOMEN followed CARRIE in quick succession. In the first, produced by Robert Altman, she plays a topless housekeeper who hustles middle-aged men on the side. In the second, directed by Altman, she undergoes two eerie personality switches, prompting one New York critic to say: "Sissy Spacek goes through more emotional changes in a half hour than most actresses do in a lifetime." Next, starting to shoot in Europe in July is a Nicholas (DON'T LOOK NOW and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH) Roeg film, as yet untitled, co-starring Art Garfunkel! Sissy described it as "a bit of a mystery and a bit of a love story."

The offers have been coming in pretty fast. In March, she was the hostess for NBC's "Saturday Night Live," her first time on live television. She said: "It was tough. But I love trying new things. As a test, I like fast rides and hiking. I've always liked things where there's an element of fear involved."

On the comedy show, she gave an impressive demonstration of her twirling abilities learned back in Quitman, where some teachers called her by her real name, Mary Elizabeth. In a way, it was an affectionate tribute to the days when she was once an actual homecoming queen. Unlike some stars, she keeps close to her roots. She and Jack have a place in L.A. and recently bought a little house on a lake near Quitman. "My HOME home is Texas, where I'm my own person and 'movie star' is meant for someone else. Texas is the place that keeps me most grounded. When I get real nuts, I can go back there and walk in the woods and swim and water ski and go riding. It's a little cocoon. It's great."

Yet, even in L.A. or New York, Sissy says she hasn't felt the negatives of stardom, like not being able to live a normal life. "I went to a screening of WELCOME TO L.A. in New York," she said, "and I certainly wasn't rushed by anybody or any crowds. I'm not a MOVIE STAR movie star, like Barbara Streisand or Katherine Hepburn. There's a space between the public and those people." Still, some other artists recognize her and say hello. And that Sissy says "is a very, very pleasant experience."

"You have to know your own talent and keep plugging along," she said after ten years of plugging to become "an overnight sensation." Sooner or later, you find someone else who sees something special in you and helps bring it out. It happened to me first and faster in film than in music.

"Of course, a lot has to do with luck and timing and you have to be able to deal with it emotionally... I'm lucky. I have a real strong family and lots of security and love. And if it all ended tomorrow, I'd just do something else." That something else, she said, would be to write and direct a film, or go back to singing.

It doesn't seem imminent that Sissy Spacek's career as an actress will dry up like a Texas watering hole in the summer. And she hopes that her future roles stress the woman rather than the freckle-faced little girl, the person rather than the Quitman twang. "I've discovered I'm more things than I once thought I was." A short laugh and toss of hair. "That's a relief."


It Made Her a Superstar, But Sissy Spacek's First Reaction to the 'Carrie' Script was Yuck

Written by Lois Armstrong
People Weekly
August 22, 1977

Down in the piny woods of Texas where actress Sissy Spacek grew up, they've got a noisom species of insects called no-see-em's. You can only hear 'em and helplessly slap at the sound. When Sissy got to Hollywood, that was the sort of movies she played in. There was an audible buzz from the artsy critics (enormously favorable, in fact) but the public at large never saw 'em. It's only been in the last months that Spacek finally broke the box office barrier in one of the industry's three accepted exotic locales. Spacek's wasn't outer space or underwater -- it was high school. The movie was CARRIE, and it is destined to be a chiller classic for all time. This summer, nine months after premiere, it's still messing up traffic outside drive-ins in the sticks, and United Artists will re-release it this Halloween. In CARRIE, Sissy plays the tormented student whose fundamentalist zealot mother (Piper Laurie) never told her about menstruation until it first happened to her embarrassingly in the girls' locker room. Carrie wreaked her revenge -- telekinetically -- on classmates and mom. Orcas come and go, but the menarche is always with us.

Likewise, it appears, Spacek. CARRIE won her the National Society of Film Critics Best Actress prize and an Academy Award nomination. Plus a headliner's slot (rerun last weekend) on NBC's "Saturday Night," in which she delivered a mock Oscar acceptance speech she never needed (Faye Dunaway won), thanking those responsible for "my short climb to the top."

It has, indeed, been miraculously short. Now 27, Sissy first starred in BADLANDS, director Terrence Malick's stunning 1974 recreation of the mass murders of Charles Starkweather. That lead her into Robert Altman's stock company, with which she has played the topless, hustling housekeeper in WELCOME TO L.A. ("the city of one night stands") and the juvenile Texan who desperately assimilates the personality of Shelly Duvall in 3 WOMEN. Concludes Altman: "Sissy's as good an actress as I've ever seen work."

Yet curiously, this woman-child superstar really hasn't worked for a year in front of the camera -- with a couple of exceptions. One was "Saturday Night Live" -- the delectable figure notwithstanding, she delivered the definitive spoof of Amy Carter. The other is a series of poses she's doing for an artist still photographer in which she plays filling station grease monkey, short order cook and Chinese dockworker. She's also magnanimously modeling for a bust by a sculptress friend, Margaret Sanders Huengardt, daughter of the chicken biggie, Col. Harland Sanders.

"It ain't easy these days to find a good project," sighs Spacek, who has turned down any number of recent roles that "weren't going to be stretches for me. I don't want to live my life to be a movie star. That's a trap. Movie star is not a position in life." Then she adds: "I keep telling myself, 'Sissy, life is not staying king of the mountain. You've just got to continue to grow and live your life purely.'" That fierce purity is probably baffling, if not galling to other, lesser actresses in the business, which is almost all of them. Possibly her rivals' only revenge is the thought that her fierce integrity (well, maybe it's the sun) produces uncontrollable freckles.

"I have little battles with myself," Sissy concedes. "I want to be indulgent but then I'm not as happy. I find that when I'm pushing myself, testing myself, that's when I'm the happiest. It's like a reward system. If I have more than I desire, it's hard for me to enjoy." Among the tests she imposes on herself are TM, fasting and rigorous backpacking. She's also into pressing flowers, photography, scratching out her own "eentsy-teensy" pen-and-ink drawings and -- in hopes of doing a 1940s musical -- daily tap dancing lessons.

It was all that ingenuousness, creativity and compulsion that enticed her eventual husband, movie art director Jack Fisk, now 31. He recalls that at their first meeting on the set of BADLANDS, "Sissy was the star, and she walked around with curlers in her hair -- I fell in love with her dedication." Though they'd "never planned to get married," the two succumbed three years ago in Santa Monica after passing their last prenuptial hour at a nearby A&W root beer stand. They were wed in jeans, with their witness a since-deceased dog, whose pawprint legitimized their license. (She wears a thin gold ring on her middle left finger -- "because I didn't want to do the traditional thing" -- and refuses to be called Mrs. Fisk. Their official name is Spacek-Fisk.)

"It wasn't love at first sight," drawls Sissy. "Neither of us expected the relationship to last. But we have great respect for each other as artists. While I spend time lining things up, Jack will throw them around. We both need a husband and wife to keep the soup on and the place warm and cozy. I want the house to have a heartbeat."

It's a modest Topanga Canyon aerie they bought two years ago, renovated with skylights, stained glass, antiques and a redwood hot tub. Their backdrop is not Beverly Hills but the Santa Monica Mountains, and this is the Bohemia, not Bel Air, of movieland. Its honorary mayor, for example, is old radical Will ("The Waltons") Greer.

Jack has gotten used to Sissy living her whacked-out roles at home as well as on the set. "Holly [of BADLANDS] and Carrie were great, but I couldn't stand Wanda [of the Tennessee Williams TV movie, THE MIGRANTS]," he laughs. "She doesn't see any of those characters as crazy. What Sissy does is give them hope." She agrees, "You have to find a strength in them. Anyone weak would not survive."

Unlike the rootless characters to whom she brings such sympathy, Sissy's own strength lies in her family. "They cradle me," she says simply. She and Jack have bought a house on a lake near the wide spot in a northeast Texas road known as Quitman (pop. 1,494), where Sissy was raised and still visits a half-dozen times a year. She was the only daughter and youngest of three children of Eddie Spacek, a retured county farm agent of Czech descent, and his wife, Virginia, whose ancestors date back to the Mayflower.

Sissy (Mary Elizabeth before being nicknamed by her brothers) spent an All-American, "full of freedom" youth rodeoing, "frog-giggin'" and waterskiing -- Quitman's last picture show folded in 1961. She recalls trying "to kiss my elbow because somebody told me that would change me into a boy." But by 13, Sissy "had found out that femininity could work in my favor" and had discovered her first goal -- to become a folksinger with the $14 guitar she'd bought at Sears. After Quitman high, where she was a cheerleader, majorette and homecoming queen, she set off for the Big Apple to do just that. Not knowing it was impossible, she had a tragic stimulus to succeed -- Robbie, her closest brother, had just died of leukemia at 19. "The first thing that I realized is that you have to live every moment as if it's your last," she says. "That helps me make decisions now, but it was a long time before I could assimilate what his death meant to me." A school track star, Robbie had taught Sissy to "push until you get a second wind, and then it's all effortless."

While her parents "pretended" she was in college ("I didn't want to waste four years") and supported her, Sissy lodged with her first cousin -- who just happened to be actor Rip Torn -- and his wife, Geraldine Page. "I felt I had to put a lot out to achieve their excellence," Sissy says of her distinguished landlords. Despite their encouragement, her fledgling career singing TV jungles and an even more embarrassing fling at modeling failed. Then she discovered acting. She studied for six months at the Lee Strasberg Theatrical Institute, auditioned and landed a small part as a spaced-out white slave in the 1972 movie PRIME CUT with Gene Hackman. "It beats the hell out of me why I went into acting. I guess it was just supposed to be," she still marvels.

Now she's anxiously awaiting the delayed start of her next project, Nicolas (THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH) Roeg's ILLUSIONS, in which she'll star with Art Garfunkel as young lovers in contemporary Vienna. The film has been postponed so long that she had to forgo Bob Altman's latest epic, THE WEDDING, but she's flattered that the part she was to have played is being filled by Mia Farrow.

Eventually Spacek wants to write, produce, direct, totally control her own movies. She has also been approached to cut a record, but she doesn't "want to rush and crowd everything into one year and have it all be over with." That seems hardly more likely than the fear of falling that sometimes nags: "I want to continually put myself out on the limb," says the accomplished artist in a metaphor straight from a tomboyish child. "I feel like people will appreciate me even if I splat."


Sissy Spacek: The Girl You Love To Hate

By Michelle Anne Walters
Screen Stars Magazine
July 1977

"I go for characters that have a bit of oomph to them," says the whispy blonde in a sort of crackly, husky voice. "The have to have something special; they have to have something different."

Well, you might say that Carrie fits the specifications for 27 year-old actress Sissy Spacek, since the character fit right in with the promotional ad endorsed by the film's director Brian De Palma. The new master of the chiller-spine-tingler flick, De Palma's advertisement campaign promised: "If you've got a taste for terror, take Carrie to the prom!"

Unfortunately for Carrie's high school class, the prophecy held true and Time Magazine recently described the little lady as "a naive nymphet who wreaks apocalyptic revenge at the senior prom on the high school classmates who have persecuted her."

Actually Sissy, who studied with Lee Strassberg in New York for almost a year, claims that Carrie is not so distant from anyone of us, that there is always a scapegoat in every class who is made the butt of jokes, who everyone loves to hate. Though Sissy calls herself "an all-American girl" -- and her real-life cheerleading-prom queen background testifies to it -- she does have memories that helped her create Carrie in such a spellbinding way.

Her model was a high school classmate and Sissy remembers: "She was from a poor family and wore weird clothes, but she was really beautiful. People made fun of her, but not as much as they did of Carrie. Dorothy filled the space in my class that Carrie did in hers, and I based a lot of the character on her. I tried to get friendly with her in school. She called me Elizabeth [Sissy's given name] and we sat together in class. I did it out of curiosity to know what a person like that was like, and she was really neat. We just sort of had this little friendship that was apart from my other friends. At the end of the year, she wrote in my yearbook, 'Elizabeth, your always so nice to me.' The words were misspelled, but I was really devastated, because our friendship had meant something to her."

Perhaps to try to make amends for the hurts and pains her friend Dorothy endured throughout her high school years, perhaps in part to prove that she was more than just a flash in the pan, Sissy actively sought out the role of Carrie -- even though she was up against stiff competition. "Brian De Palma had told me I wasn't his choice for the part, that I would probably be playing Chris, the bad girl in the film," Sissy says. "But I decided to show up at the screen test, anyway. I rubbed Vaseline in my hair, and got as funky as I could. All the other girls and guys were so neat looking and there I was in a little blue sailor dress I had worn in the seventh grade. The make-up people grabbed me as I walked in and said, 'Hey, we've got to work on you,' but I convinced them not to. I was told later that day that I'd gotten the part."

Not only had Sissy gotten the part, but she went on to win the National Society of the Film Critics' Best Actress Award and scoop up an Oscar nomination at the same time. All this was pretty heady stuff for a little girl from Quitman, Texas -- though if you ask her now, she says that even as a child she wanted something special out of life, to do something more than the run-of-the-mill. The daughter of Virginia and Eddie Spacek -- he was the county agent for the Department of Agriculture in Quitman -- Sissy claims that even at a tender age she was "always into personal tests. I thought if somebody else could do it, I should be able to do it. I became a rodeo rider and I remember being at the gate before the barrel race and just being terrified. But then once the race started, you were gone and all you had to do was hang on."

As for her hopes and dreams, Sissy claims, "I was never shy, I had friends, but I think I was always my own best friend. I felt a certain duality in myself; I think most people do. There was my outside self, the self that knew what I was supposed to do -- to go to school, to be real precious, how to work with people. And then there was my inside self that knew how I really felt about things, that knew the real dreams I didn't tell anyone about. I always had a metal fishing-tackle box that I kept under my bed with my secret things in it. I'm looking for it right now."

Part of Sissy's dream was to become a singer and after her family found out that her older brother had leukemia, they allowed her to visit cousin/actor Rip Torn and his wife Geraldine Page in New York. The reason for the summer trip was to her Sissy "get out from underneath" her brother's illness, but after she returned home to finish her last year in high school, her brother died and New York seemed a good enough place to forget the pain ad sorrow that lingered at home. So once more, Sissy arrived on Rip Torn's doorstep and this time she recalls, "It gave me strength being Rip's cousin. I thought he was a wonderful actor, and that maybe it ran in the family. When I first came here in 1967, he set up a meeting at the William Morris Agency. I had my guitar, and a lot of men filed into the room, and I started to sing my heart out. Then they filed out, and they filed in again, and they told me to keep on plugging and come back in a few years."

She did keep on plugging and though she eventually turned to acting instead of singing, Sissy was making her mark early on among the New York acting crowd. Of course, exposure to a whole new group of people at the Torn-Page residence didn't hurt. But Sissy laughingly claims it didn't really help in the beginning: "I was exposed to all these incredible people! But I had no idea who they were. I remember once singing a song at their house, one I'd written about my brother, and one of the lines was, 'I feel a soft touch while I'm sleeping.' Afterwards, somebody named Terry Southern came up and asked me if I was a virgin. I was so shocked that anyone would ask such a thing! So I said, 'Of course I am. What do you mean?' Only years later did I find out that he was working at the time on the movie of CANDY."

What Terry Southern saw in Sissy became more and more obvious as she matured, while still retaining that little-girl innocence. First she was cast in PRIME CUT, a thriller starring Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman, but she really called attention to herself with her next film with Martin Sheen, BADLANDS. Within a very short time she had won over BADLANDS director Terrence Malick with her warmth and innocence. He says: "Though she was very charming, she didn't seem aware of her charm, how it affected other people or how to use it. Her intelligence comes out in her affectionateness. It's an intelligence about knowing what people want and need. You felt a core in her that you trusted. It wasn't all performance. You felt safe hands with her. And you could imagine that her life goes on off-screen."

Pretty incredible praise from one of today's hottest directors, but though BADLANDS won critical acclaim, Sissy sat on the sidelines for two years waiting for the next right role. Of course, she made good use of the time off -- she married Jack Fisk, a talented young art director she met while making BADLANDS. They set about making a life for themselves and Sissy ended up working for Jack as a set decorator on PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. That's when Brian De Palma first found his lead for CARRIE. While working on PARADISE he became enthralled with the young actress and decided she was going to be in his next film. Sissy claims: "I became fascinated with the way De Palma worked. Brian helped me enormously. He helped show me how a girl can be made to feel beautiful or plain and shy by the attitude of others."

As for the future, well, everything seems to be opening up for Sissy. Two films -- both Robert Altman movies, THREE WOMEN and WELCOME TO L.A. -- are being released right now and Sissy claims she's being offered more and more good scripts every day. As for accepting any more horror-type films, Sissy says: "Not all of my parts have been creepy. But they have been pretty strange. You have to admit to yourself how you look, and maybe those are the parts I look right for. We all have our own boundaries and limitations. I know one thing though -- I don't want to do any more Carrie-type parts. I've done that. There are many things I want to do in life, and I don't have time to spend doing things I've already done."

See Sissy in Lion's Gate Film's WELCOME TO L.A.


My Generation -- Sissy Spacek

Super Natural

By Laurie Winer
My Generation
July-August 2001

Ever Since CARRIE, Sissy Spacek has knocked us dead with her innocence, her strength – and her otherworldliness.

I’m driving up a pebbled, tree-lined path surrounded by rolling Virginia Hills. To the right, horses amble behind a tastefully distressed wooden barn. The farmhouse, farther up the road and past a flower garden, features a porch overlooking a duck pond. With ducks.

It looks like a movie set, which is not surprising since Sissy Spacek lives here with Jack Fisk, her husband of 27 years and a gifted production designer (BADLANDS, DAYS OF HEAVEN, CARRIE, for example). Also in residence, devoted equestrian Madison Fisk, 12, four dogs an Abyssinian cat, horses and other wildlife. (Schuyler, 19, the couple’s elder daughter, is shooting a movie in Los Angeles).

Spacek and Fisk met on the set of BADLANDS, Terrence Malick’s 1973 film, when she was 22 and he, 26. “We didn’t think it would be a long-term thing,” Spacek says, as she settles herself in the sitting room. “I knew I liked to go to the dump with Jack. Or Pep Boys. Everything was an adventure with him. And we were collaborators. We both had a passion about work. All I can figure is that, karmically, I had one coming.”

Spacek’s skin is the color of corn flour, her hair, a silky strawberry-wheat, and her almond-shaped eyes turn sharp at the outer corners. She wears the same loose bun she sported the night she won the Oscar for COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER 21 years ago. The pleasant lilt of this face, with its mysterious reserve of power, provided a canvas on which directors such as Malick, Brian De Palma and Robert Altman could project the unsettling side of innocence.

In person, there is nothing unsettling about her. Born on Christmas Day, 1949, she grew up in Quitman, Texas, which then had a population of 1,200. She was always tagging along with her two older brothers, Robbie and Ed. They were the ones who changed her name from Mary Elizabeth to Sissy, marking forever her identity as a sister. “They let me follow them everywhere and I got to do a lot of things girls my age didn’t get to do, like build forts and play with machetes out in the woods.” She wanted to raise her children in that kind of environment, she says. She and Jack had bought the Virginia farm in 1978, after the success of BADLANDS and CARRIE, and in 1982, when Schuyler was five months old, they moved from their place in California’s Topanga Canyon to live here full time.

“I’ve always felt that I wanted to be a part of things, and not separated from people and real life,” says Spacek calmly, in her familiar East Texas twang. “In the city you can stick your head out the taxi window and scream at someone and they won’t ever see you again. When you see the same people all the time, you have to live in a certain way.”

The down-to-earth thing is not a posture. Spacek is relaxed and unguarded, and these are the qualities that first attracted filmmakers to the young, untrained actress. Director David Lynch, a childhood friend of Fisk’s, says: “She was hip. She wasn’t afraid to go anywhere. She understands nature the way an actor should. She can let go of herself and take on something new. And directors love her for it.”

Spacek found her calling when she saw the Cokettes, a chorus line of little girls, at a talent show in Coke, Texas. “It was just a tiny little stage, with a line of tiny Cokettes – ages five to ten – performing,” Spacek recalls. “I was sitting in the audience, about six, looking at their shiny short skirts and little vests and fringe and their boots and their batons, and I was thinking, ‘I wish I were up there.’ So I found my thing. I started to sing and dance onstage, doing ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ at talent shows. I started to write music. I didn’t want to be an actress at all, but I would sing for anybody.”

And then there were the visits from dad’s glamorous New York cousins, actor Rip Torn and his wife Geraldine Page. “There was a polish to them,” Spacek recalls, “something they had that came from the city. We were all excited. One time Rip had a script with him from a TV show he was doing, ‘Combat!’ – I remember just running my hand over the title on the page.”

In 1967, Spacek’s brother Robbie contracted leukemia. “I remember that feeling of waking up in the morning and thinking for a split-second that everything was normal. I remember the feeling of not being able to swallow,” she says, her eyes widening at the thought: “There are people all over the world every moment who are experiencing that.”

Spacek’s parents thought it would be good for her to get away to New York and spend some time with her famous cousins. “They were wonderful to me,” recalls Spacek, who would play her songs for an attentive Geraldine Page. “If they were sad songs, she’d cry.” Spacek got a taste of the artist’s life, accompanying Page to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where she was appearing in “Black Comedy.”

Spacek returned home to finish high school and to be with Robbie as he died. “My mother desperately wanted Robbie’s death to change us and make us better people, and for life to have even more meaning for us. My parents had read a lot of Norman Vincent Peale – the power of positive thinking. They were very intent on not breaking my spirit. My father thought I had a lot of moxie.”

Following her moxie, Spacek moved to Manhattan to pursue a recording career under the name “Rainbo.” “I had already faced the biggest thing there was to face, the loss of my brother. So after that nothing frightened me.”

Things didn’t work out for Rainbo, but Spacek thrived. She played guitar in clubs and took the role of a drugged-out sex slave in Michael Ritchie’s 1972 film PRIME CUT. It was the first and arguably the only time she would play “a piece of girl fluff,” as she puts it. On an impulse, she flew to Los Angeles to bunk with a friend she’d met in New York. Her friend drove Spacek to audition at the home of a young director name Terrence Malick. For BADLANDS, Malick was looking for someone to play Holly, the inscrutable 15 year old who travels across South Dakota and Montana with a young serial killer (Martin Sheen) who she thinks looks like James Dean. Spacek immediately clicked into it: “I didn’t think of her as odd; I just thought about what parts of me were most like her.”

Malick handed her slips of paper with lines on them and said, “How would Holly say this?” Spacek recalls. “I’d look at the paper and say it and he’d laugh. Then I’d do another one and he would just go wild. I could do no wrong for him. By our third meeting he and his wife had given me an old Triumph sports car so I could come over every day. It was a great, great time. I felt that I had something to say. And Terry Malick gave that to me. And he gave me the feeling that what I felt was important.

Spacek’s combination of passivity and will found stronger expression in Brian De Palma’s CARRIE. DePalma had someone else in mind to play the abused teenager who finds brief happiness at the prom before destroying her entire senior class with telekinetic rage. Spacek wanted the part, but she was scheduled to film a Vanquish pain reliever commercial the same day as her audition. She called DePalma, who she knew through her husband. “He said, ‘Do the commercial.’ I hung up the phone and said ‘I’m gonna get this part.’ I was feeling unloved and I was mad. I reread the book and I found a dress I had from the seventh grade. It was a baby-blue sailor dress. I let the hem out and made it long. I put Vaseline in my hair and I didn’t wash my face. When I got to the audition, the hair and makeup people came rushing over to me, but I didn’t let them get close.” Whomever else DePalma had in mind for the role was history.

Spacek can only guess why she was so arresting in the she-demon roles. “When I was in my twenties,” she says, “I was so young-looking, but also pretty worldly. I think it looked like there might be something going on in there… or maybe not.”

1977, Newsweek put her on the cover, under the title THE NEW ACTRESS. It was the era of the natural girl: long, straight hair, usually braless, emotionally forthcoming, a crusader of truth. Spacek exemplified this persona in MISSING, the 1982 Costa-Gavras film about the 1973 military coup in Chile. In that film, which earned her the third of her five Best Actress nominations, Spacek played a young American trying to find her missing journalist husband. In her search, she learns of her own government’s involvement in the coup and educates her disbelieving father-in-law, played by Jack Lemmon.

The actress recalls how it felt to be in the center of the culture at that moment. “We had just come from the era of BARBARELLA,” Spacek says, laughing, “when women weren’t portrayed so much as used. Then the seventies came along and that all changed again. I was the Every-woman of that era in a way, don’t you think? I was part of a big thing that was happening. We had gone along, a trusting generation with loving parents, raised to believe certain things about our country. But then – we could see there were some subversive things going on.”

Spacek’s political education took place on-set. “I can truthfully say that because of film, I’ve had my eyes opened and I’ve been the better for it,” she says. “We all believed we were artists, people who could not be bought. It was the decade of the independent filmmaker – Scorsese and De Palma and Malick and Spielberg. The films they made were the stories in their heads, the stories they wanted to tell, told the way they wanted to tell them. Time marches on; things fall out of national favor. Now the best scripts you read – they can’t find the money to make them.

Yet Spacek continues to find good and diverse roles. After the crowning triumph of her early career – her remarkable performance as Loretta Lynn in COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER – Spacek did heartwarming (CRIMES OF THE HEART, her fifth Oscar nomination), noble (THE RIVER, her fourth), and bleak and non-commercial (‘NIGHT, MOTHER).

By 1997, she was taking roles as idiosyncratic as those early in her career. In Paul Shrader’s AFFLICTION she played a gentile, no-nonsense waitress who represents the last chance at happiness for a man ravaged by his past. “Now I’m starting to get the good parts,” says Spacek. “I love the character parts – like Rose.”

Rose is the stuttering, caretaking daughter she played in David Lynch’s THE STRAIGHT STORY, a film about a stubborn elderly man who drives a lawn mower from Illinois to Wisconsin to see his brother for the last time. It is Lynch at his most lyrical, thanks in part to the mysterious grace Spacek brings to her part. Fisk was the production designer on the film. “It was heaven,” says Spacek of the experience.

She faced a tougher challenge in IN THE BEDROOM, which director Todd Field adapted from an Andre Dubus short story, “Killings.” Spacek plays an emotionally remote woman unable to access her grief or comfort her husband after their son is murdered. Field says he approached her because of the “lack of vanity in her work. The character I wanted her to play is a grown-up and has a certain grace to her and a certain stature to her. I mean life stature, not movie-star stature.”

Playing Ruth was hard for the emotionally expansive actress. “I felt all the time that I would explode,” recalls Spacek. “I was holding so much in that it gave me headaches.” It also took Spacek back to her own grievous loss. When he died, her brother was just a few years younger than the son in the film. “Now, as a parent, I fully realize what my parents went through. But for Ruth – to lose a child to an act of violence – it’s almost more than flesh can bear.”

Currently, Spacek is filming TUCK EVERLASTING, from the Natalie Babbitt children’s book about a family that drinks from the fountain of youth and lives to regret it. Spacek says she took the part because her daughters loved the book, but the story gave her food for thought. “As an actor, you want to look the best you can look for your age, but if you don’t look your age, who will you play? Our insides have to match the outside.”

Spacek continues, “One of the reasons our society celebrates youth is because there’s nothing more beautiful, vital and hopeful than a young body. We should be in awe of those aspects of youthfulness. It’s what keeps the world moving forward. But there is something also that comes as our bodies are beginning to fail us – our spirits shining through. If we didn’t age, we would never do spirit work or soul work. You hit forty, you start to decline. That’s just the way it is. For me, it’s made me appreciate and admire youth – and face the fact that what I need to work on is spirit and soul.


The Greats: Sissy Spacek

Entertainment Weekly
November 16, 2001
By Steve Daly

For nearly 30 years, she played the acting game her way-- forsaking the Hollywood hills for the uncommon ground of Virginia. Now, the star of the poignant drama In the Bedroom looks back on her road less traveled.

What's it like being fawned over by James Lipton, host of Bravo's career-tribute show Inside the Actors Studio? Flattering, to be sure. But for Sissy Spacek, also dang uncomfortable.

''Oh, my gyaaash, I just felt so silly,'' she says from behind dainty sunglasses on a bright October day in Manhattan, the morning after taping her turn in the Lipton limelight. (The program is scheduled to air early next year.) ''I've been a fan of the show,'' she explains, her native Texas twang turning ''fan'' into a two-syllable exclamation. ''You know, you imagine yourself being very profound. And then you're telling stupid jokes about your childhood... I woke up in the night thinking, What did I say? Did I really tap-dance?''

She did, resurrecting the only step she could remember learning as a kid. Coming out of a sort of interview-anxiety trance, Spacek removes her shades and begins composing herself over tea at a posh Upper East Side restaurant. She nibbles on poppy-seed cake that looks almost as freckled as her complexion once did. Only a faint dusting of dots shows now, and Spacek seems startlingly fresh-faced for someone who will celebrate her 52nd birthday on Christmas Day.

Perking up with caffeine, Spacek worries more about how she came off on the show, confiding that she was much more comfortable once she got ''down on the floor'' for a question-and-answer session with students from the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, where Spacek dabbled in the early '70s. ''They already have more training than I do,'' she marvels.

It's startling to hear Spacek declare that neophytes might have one up on her. After all, she racked up five Best Actress Oscar nominations between 1977 and 1987, playing a fury-driven teen in Carrie (1976), singer Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), a widowed leftist in Missing (1982), a sturdy farm wife in The River (1984), and a nutty husband shooter in Crimes of the Heart. She didn't snag comparably high-profile roles in the '90s, in part because she bolted Hollywood's cliquey canyons for 160 acres of Virginia farmland to raise two daughters, Schuyler, 18 (a budding actress), and Madison, 13, with her husband, production designer and sometime director Jack Fisk, 55. Still, she's worked steadily in socially conscious dramas such as 1990's The Long Walk Home (which tackled the racial tensions behind the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott) and the 1996 HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk (a plea for abortion rights).

Now, for the first time in 15 years, Oscar radar screens are again picking up Spacek on the strength of In the Bedroom, a tale of family tragedy that debuted at Sundance in January and opens in theaters Thanksgiving weekend. Clipping her natural sense of direct engagement to play frosty matriarch Ruth Fowler, Spacek keeps a cauldron of resentments -- against her husband (The Full Monty's Tom Wilkinson) and against her son (Nick Stahl), who's involved with a single mother (Marisa Tomei) -- on a mesmerizing low simmer. Until things shockingly boil over.
"It completely lacks sentimentality," says the British Wilkinson of Spacek's performance. "Which is somewhat un-American, I must say. She absolutely refuses to curry favor."

That makes for a potent bit of Oscar-season bait: an edgy performance by a personable actress Academy voters clearly like. Spacek doesn't warm to talk of odds, though. She'd much rather linger on the up-by-your-bootstraps high she got making the movie.

"It was all hands on deck," she says, leaning forward over her teacup and spreading her arms as if conjuring rough seas. The original production designer left early on, so Spacek stepped in, becoming a de facto crew member alongside the suddenly promoted set decorator, Shannon Hart, and actor-turned-first-time director Todd Field's wife, Serena Rathbun, who helped out in the crunch. Spacek hauled furniture, hung window treatments, and sorted the china closet. Describing the sheer labor, she sounds like an ex-hippie reminiscing about a disbanded commune. "Everybody was there because they were desperately passionate. We didn't have much money." She sinks back a little, hunches her shoulders, crinkles that snub nose and chuckles. "It was like the old days."

Raised in tiny Quitman, Tex., Spacek was born mary Elizabeth. (Her older brothers Ed and Robbie called their tagalong, tomboy sibling Sissy, and it stuck.) She skipped college with her parents' blessing; life seemed too short to spend four years at the University of Texas after Robbie died of leukemia during her senior year in high school. And they paid for her to live in New York City, supporting her resolve to become a singer-songwriter.

Initially, Spacek stayed with her cousin Elmore Torn--better known as Rip Torn (an established stage and film actor long before he became Artie on The Larry Sanders Show)--and his wife, actress Geraldine Page. Spacek has a blanket phrase for her fumblings through occasional guitar-playing gigs and forays into the whirl of late-'60s social and artistic eddies: "Trying to find my crowd." For months, she tagged along to Page's performances in Black Comedy and White Lies on Broadway. "I'd never been to a theater in my life," she remembers. "I watched every show and played pinochle with the crew members underneath the stage."

Torn remembers arranging a meeting for Spacek around 1969 at a talent agency that represented him at the time. "They [told me], 'This is a sweet girl, but she doesn't have that much talent,'" says Torn. "I fired that bunch. But it didn't do me any good. She later went to work with them, and they'd never have anything to do with me after that!"

Spacek's break came when a record company hired her to cut a single, "John, You've Gone Too Far This Time," under the name Rainbo. The song was a novelty ditty chiding John Lennon for his nude Two Virgins album cover with Yoko Ono. But the single did only so-so, and that was Rainbo's end. Spacek now says that failing on 45s was "the best thing that ever happened to me," because it made her much less willing to have others shape her image. After that, she began dabbling in acting, scoring work as an extra in Andy Warhol's 1970 opus Trash, for which she had to stand by a bar next to transvestite Holly Woodlawn for nine hours. Eventually, Spacek met a manager and a casting agent she liked, which led to her first substantial movie role, as a white-slavery abductee in the 1972 thriller Prime Cut. What does Spacek remember most about it now? Costar Lee Marvin telling her she had big feet.
If she'd tried to break into the movie business a few years later than she did, Sissy Spacek might be a footnote today. She got in the door just as anti-glamorous faces were beginning to rule the business. Her luminous, slightly spooky features were an ideal canvas for a new crop of maverick filmmakers--Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, Alan Rudolph, Robert Altman--trying to upend tired conventions. Callow beauties on the order of Cybill Shepherd? Next! (Unless you were Peter Bogdanovich.) But a woman who could use her looks to come off more like a Diane Arbus photo of Shepherd's shut-in cousin? Right this way.

Spacek clicked immediately with Malick, a fellow Texan who created a revolutionary new mix of natural-light cinematography, thematically rich settings, and cool, puzzling characters in the fact-inspired crime drama Badlands. Malick often relied on Spacek to help craft her dialogue when he rejiggered scenes at the last minute. But she had another, equally formative collaborator on the film, one she wound up marrying in 1974 and working with on seven more movies: art director Jack Fisk. As he threw himself into building a world for Spacek's teen rebel to inhabit, Fisk says he ''fell in love with her dedication'' to using every scrap of production detail to deepen her performance.

''When she was a kid, Sissy's dad would call her Snooter,'' says Fisk fondly. ''Because she would come to his office and go through all the drawers. I'd leave her things in the drawers [on the Badlands sets] that I thought had to do with her character.'' He remembers putting together a box full of baubles, including an iron figure of a soldier on horseback. ''You didn't know what they were. They'd just get you thinking. It became a wonderful collaboration.''

This artistic breakthrough didn't put Spacek on the map--yet. Though Badlands wrapped by the fall of 1972, it would not premiere at the New York Film Festival for another year, and didn't make it to theaters until 1974. In the interim, Spacek racked up TV appearances. She picked a bachelor on The Dating Game (though she never did wind up going through with the date). She was a plucky pregnant teen in the movie The Girls of Huntington House. She guested on The Rookies and appeared twice on The Waltons as Sarah, who tried to convince John-Boy (Richard Thomas) he should marry her by wheedling ''When are you gonna stop being John-Boy and start being John-Man?''

By the time Brian De Palma hired Fisk for a horror film called Carrie--based on the first novel by then-unknown Stephen King--Spacek was pushing 26 and hungry to make a bigger splash. She managed to get in on auditions with a group of promising actors, including John Travolta and Nancy Allen. Then De Palma put up a roadblock. His favorite to play Carrie was an actress who'd done a movie about abortion. So he told Spacek she should do a TV commercial for Vanquish headache pills when it happened to fall on the same day as the final screen tests.

"It made me...really mad," says Spacek, eyes widening momentarily as if channeling her telekinetic character. "He was in essence saying, 'You don't have a chance, babe.' Hrrrrr, I'll show HIM." For the final tryout, she refused to let the makeup folks prettify her. She smeared Vaseline in her hair and wore a freaky sailor suit her mom had made for her in seventh grade. (Pay attention in the movie when a kid on a bike yells "Creepy Carrie!"--Spacek says Carrie's wearing the same outfit.)

Fisk watched in the projection room as De Palma unspooled the screen tests a few days later. The director's choice wound up coming off as "too much of a victim," says Fisk. But Spacek left everybody thunderstruck; she was dorky and sympathetic. Fisk ran to find his wife. "She was hiding in the parking lot in her little Austin-Healy [sports car]," Fisk laughs. (She wasn't supposed to be around for the judging.) "I told her, You got the part! Ask for whatever you want!"

In Fisk's recollection, the studio hadn't signed a deal with Spacek before doing the test, and she was able to negotiate a deal geared more to the back end than to an up-front payment. "If the film hadn't made money, she wouldn't have gotten much," Fisk explains. But the 1976 picture, which cost less than $2 million, hit a nerve with teens and grossed a whopping $34 million. "Every time it made another $10 million, [Sissy] made more money."

By the end of the '70s, Spacek had cornered the market in what critics called "child-woman" roles. With her tiny 5-foot-2-inch frame, passing for much younger was easy. She played a topless housekeeper in Welcome to L.A., a talentless troop entertainer in the PBS telefilm Verna: U.S.O. Girl, and a parasitic gal pal of Shelley Duvall's in Three Women. (Let's not forget one other immortal optical illusion: mimicking President Jimmy Carter's little girl Amy to perfection on Saturday Night Live.) But taking on the role of country singer Loretta Lynn for Coal Miner's Daughter, which required aging from 13 to 40-something on screen, closed the child-woman chapter for good.

If ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY had existed in 1980, the magazine would have been busy reporting the film's behind-the-scenes wrangling. The first candidate for director, Joseph Sargent (who'd had a hit with The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), spent a week on tour with the real Lynn. She thought he condescended to her. She says she delivered the following verdict to Universal execs: "I told 'em, 'He's made some great movies. But I think he would make this one at my expense, and I'm not gonna have him.'" Besides, Sargent opposed hiring Spacek, Lynn's first choice for the part.

Spacek wasn't at all sure she wanted it. For one thing, she worried about impersonating such a well-known figure. And Universal brass thought that whoever played Lynn should lip-synch to the original recordings, the better to hold down rehearsal and production costs and package a sure-to-sell greatest-hits album at minimal expense. Spacek wanted to warble.
Enter replacement director Michael Apted, a Brit with zero knowledge of country music but a way with documentary footage (he has famously profiled a group of Brits from childhood to middle age in seven-year increments in the 7 Up documentary series). He was fine with Spacek, but unsure about having her sing. "I had no idea whether she could," he says. The director was later stunned when Spacek's exhaustive preparation made her a dead ringer for Lynn, even on the songs. (Apted says she she once phoned him posing as Loretta, and he couldn't tell the difference.)

Spacek had some trouble letting her uncanny impression go after the movie wrapped. "When I was her, I was so funny," she says. "It got very sad when the end came." She took some solace in the battery of rave reviews and, finally, an Oscar statuette. But for all the recognition, Spacek seems to most treasure the memory of the first time she tried out her "Loretta voice" on her dear, now-departed mutt, Heidi. The pooch came bounding up to Spacek, but then out came that Kentucky cadence from the actress' throat. "Heidi completely put on the brakes," Spacek says. "She backed away, like, 'Oops! Wrong mom.' That was a turning point for me. I fooled my dog."

Actors can't always plan a movie career in measured doses. Just look at Spacek's resume in the late '80s. In 1986, she appeared like a blitzkrieg in three movies: the Fisk-directed Violets Are Blue, a romance costarring Kevin Kline; 'night, Mother, an adaptation of Marsha Norman's Pulitzer-winning play about a suicidal woman; and Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley's rewrite of her own Pulitzer-winning play. Then Spacek went nearly four years without working.

What happened? Simple, says her Crimes costar Jessica Lange: "After that movie, both of us had babies." They lived near each other in Virginia at the time, and Spacek seemed perfectly happy to hunker down for a while with her husband and children. "Sissy's life was always more important than her career," says Lange. "Which is what I think people should aspire to. When she works, she works as hard as anybody I've ever seen. If she's not working, that's okay too."

What Spacek gave up definitively was the whirlwind movie-star schedule of the previous decade. "The way she told it to me," says In the Bedroom's Wilkinson, "was that she played the game for a few years. And then she said, 'I'm employing an agent, a manager, a publicity somebody, and this that and the other, and I don't need to do this. I don't want to do this anymore.'"

Nowadays, Spacek's roles often hinge on some familial, emotional, or geographical serendipity. Her old Coal Miner's Daughter costar Tommy Lee Jones, for instance, put together the 1995 made-for-cable Western The Good Old Boys, and Spacek scored an Emmy nomination under his direction. Hugh Wilson, who directed her as a mom trapped in the '60s in 1999's Blast From the Past, happens to be a neighbor. That same year, Spacek's longtime connection to filmmaker David Lynch finally bore fruit with The Straight Story. Fisk and Lynch have been friends "since eighth grade, and probably another life," says Spacek, and Fisk designed Straight Story and Mulholland Drive. Spacek herself snapped a clapboard on the set of Lynch's bizarro feature debut Eraserhead, and the couple received a thank-you in the final credits after kicking in cash for the production. How much? Lynch can't remember but says, "It was a lot of money to me, I'll tell you that. It kept me going."

These days, Spacek can afford to pick and choose. "I think I'm doing it for my own satisfaction now," she says of acting. "I don't think in career terms." She treasures the moment she snipped off her hair with pinking shears to play Rose, the frumpy, speech-impaired daughter in The Straight Story, as "incredibly freeing"--and also a matter of practicality, because there wasn't time or budget to don a wig. "The films that belong to me, I'll do," she says. "The ones [that] don't, someone else will do. Films are like little rivers and creeks, just kind of floating along. You just have to know you'll find something sooner or later."

And if the flow of worthy scripts ebbs, that's fine. Sissy Spacek has plenty of real rivers and creeks, always beckoning, right outside her door.